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The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does The Jungle's title reflect life in Packingtown?

Packingtown is similar to a jungle in many ways. Both are filled with animals—the jungle with wild animals and Packingtown with cattle and pigs—and both are dangerous places where survival is a daily struggle. In the jungle there is a food chain in which powerful predators feast off of powerless prey. The same is true in Packingtown, where powerful businesses profit off powerless workers. Through exploitation in the workplace and the institutions that have grown up around it, men are reduced to animal-like existences. Only the strong survive, and each individual must find his own way—through corruption, violence, and crime—to become predator rather than prey.

In The Jungle what is the fatal flaw that Jurgis and his family exhibit in America?

A fatal flaw is a trait that leads to a character's downfall. The biggest mistake Jurgis and his family make is to blindly trust the American Dream. In their naïvety they believe that in America, people are honest and hard work reaps rewards. Because of this blind trust in the system, they make a series of terrible financial mistakes. First they buy a house they can't afford, trusting that their jobs are secure and their mortgage fair. They spend money furnishing their home rather than saving, and they try to protect too many family members from work (Ona, Teta Elzbieta, the children). The same financial mistakes are mirrored in Jurgis and Ona's wedding feast, which pushes the family further into debt when they naïvely assume guests will generously leave gifts of money. The family's early financial missteps, based on their blind trust in the American Dream, dig a financial hole the family never escapes from.

How do Jurgis's three periods of homelessness in The Jungle compare and contrast?

Jurgis becomes homeless three times in the novel: first after Ona dies and he searches for work downtown, then after Antanas dies and he willingly chooses to become a tramp, and finally after his second stint in prison. Each period of homelessness follows a doomed attempt to capture the American Dream. The first time he becomes homeless is a result of the cruel work conditions in Packingtown, after his attempt to find a reliable, well-paying job. Harsh capitalist competition means he must move further and further away from his family to find work. After Ona and Antanas's deaths, he feels he no longer has anyone to live for and becomes homeless again—his family having crumbled under the cruel conditions of their capitalist work place. Finally, his third period of homelessness, perhaps its truest form, occurs when he is simply too poor to afford shelter. Jurgis's first two periods of homelessness were self-inflicted. He chose homelessness as a way to either help his family or escape his responsibilities. The third period of homelessness, however, is a result of the cruel system that used Jurgis up and spat him out. After having his savings swindled, Jurgis has no family, no money, and no social systems to rely on. He is utterly and completely alone. Through Jurgis's continuous struggle with homelessness, Sinclair suggests that in a capitalistic society, once an individual falls into poverty, homelessness is an all too common condition.

How does The Jungle portray the immigrant experience?

In The Jungle immigrants are exploited and abused for their naïve belief in the American Dream. While the novel focuses on the plight of Jurgis and his family, Sinclair makes it clear that their story is not unique. He periodically pulls back his focus on the family to show how their struggle mirrors the struggles of other immigrants: the Germans, Irish, Bohemians, Lithuanians, and Russians, for example. Like the cartloads of cattle that arrive to Packingtown, boatloads of unsuspecting immigrants arrive in Chicago every week. The majority of them, Sinclair implies, are destined for the same bleak fate. When Jurgis returns home after being released from jail the first time, he is confronted by an Irish family living in his home. They are "whistling" with optimism about their new lives, not suspecting their fate, just as Jurgis's family and all the previous homeowners never suspected theirs. Capitalism doesn't work for many immigrants because they are too vulnerable to the dark sides of the political system: competition and exploitation, for example. Many immigrants, like Jurgis and his family, are isolated from the personal support systems and don't know how to access societal ones. Socialism, Sinclair argues, is a better system for immigrants because it encourages community where everyone looks out for each other, including the weaker members of society.

What obstacles does Jurgis face in trying to spread the message of socialism in The Jungle?

Many people in Packingtown, such as Teta Elzbieta, for example, are suspicious of socialism's promises. These workers have been downtrodden and exploited by capitalism for so long that they cannot imagine a social structure in which they could succeed. Those suspicious of socialism are described as being ignorant, unable to "see the light" that would guide them to a better future. Because they have been struggling for so long, characters like Teta Elzbieta can only think about themselves and their own survival. Having placed all their faith in the promise or "light" of the American Dream, only to be beaten down and devastated, they have become individualists. Characters like Teta Elzbieta cannot comprehend a socially-minded political structure that would value the welfare of society over the individual, nor would they trust it if they could.

In what ways does The Jungle fail to address racism as a social evil?

The Jungle may seem progressive in many ways, but not in its treatment of race. While Sinclair compares all workers to "dumb beasts," that label only applies to people like Jurgis when they are trapped in the "jungle" of Packingtown. During the beef strike, when substitute workers flood Packingtown, Sinclair characterizes the African Americans in singularly racist terms: It was a weird sight, there on the killing beds—a throng of stupid black Negroes, and foreigners who could not understand a word that was said to them, mixed with pale-faced, hollow-chested bookkeepers and clerks. Elsewhere in the novel Sinclair goes to lengths to explain the causes and effects of society's failings, but here he fails to include racism in this list. Interestingly, the socialist communities Sinclair fought to create— which promoted equality as its core tenant—specifically excluded African Americans.

In The Jungle how are the characters of Marija and Jurgis similar and different?

Marija and Jurgis are similar in their fierce determination to survive. Both are physically strong and easily find work upon moving to America. Both are desperately in love with their partners, but Jurgis is able to marry Ona, while Marija is forced postpone marrying Tamoszius. Both work tirelessly to help the family survive, descending to the lowest occupations available to do so: Jurgis at the fertilizer plant and Marija into prostitution. However, Jurgis abandons his family in their most desperate time of need while Marija sacrifices herself completely for their survival. Both escape their harsh realities through alcohol and drugs. The only difference between them is that Jurgis regains his humanity through the optimistic promise of socialism, while Marija feels trapped by her addiction, believing she is destined to live and die in the brothel.

Is Jurgis any wiser at the end of The Jungle than he was in the beginning?

At the beginning of the novel, Jurgis is naïve. He trusts in the American Dream and believes that with hard work, he will succeed, boldly saying, "do you want me to believe that with these arms ... people will ever let me starve?" Each time he encounters a person or group claiming to know the way forward—be it the union, Jack Duane, Mike Scully, or socialists—he blindly trusts that they have his best interest at heart and will do right by him when the time comes. Inevitably, these relationships let him down: the union fails to finds him a job, Jack Duane has to skip town, Mike Scully turns his back on him after he has helped him rig an election, and a criminal partner cheats him after his second arrest. In spite of ample evidence regarding the fallibility of human nature, at the end of the novel, Jurgis seems wildly, and perhaps foolishly, optimistic about the promises of his new socialist friends.

How does The Jungle depict nature?

In spite of the novel's name, The Jungle generally depicts nature as balm to the injuries industrialization bestows on workers. The only jungle isn't literally a jungle at all: Chicago, where predatory bosses prey on exploited workers amid the hellish machinery of the slaughterhouses, in drafty apartments, and in view of an enormous dump. While struggling to survive in this urban "jungle," Jurgis doesn't see even a tree for over three years. When he returns to nature during his life as a tramp, Jurgis regains his physical strength and his humanity. He literally washes the filth of industrialization off himself in the stream, sleeps in the comfort of the fields, and feasts off the abundance of nature. Whereas the industrialized city is seen as evil and corrupt—as a concrete jungle—the countryside is portrayed as pure, abundant, and enriching. Of course once summer ends, Jurgis realizes that he must return to the city for his living. The side of nature reflected by winter and its attendant cold is no more forgiving than capitalism. Although nature offers a temporary relief to Jurgis's struggles, Sinclair makes clear that the only long-lasting relief will be the embrace of socialism.

How does The Jungle subvert common positive associations with rain, snow, and spring, for example?

Weather like rain and snow are often viewed as positive forces. Rain, for example, is often purifying—washing away dirt and grime—while white snow often connotes purity. The spring season is often viewed as a time of rebirth and a fresh start. In The Jungle, however, each of these images is subverted to become a negative force in the family's life. The snow causes struggle and death as winter is portrayed as a fierce predator stalking the weak. Spring is a time of vermin infestation and heavy rains that fail to wash dirt away and instead flood the houses and streets with muddy water that makes people sick and kills baby Antanas. Instead of being a time of rebirth, spring is a time of death. Mother Nature—as seen through all four seasons—is portrayed as yet another machine that breaks down and disposes of the weak. In every aspect of Jurgis's life, only the strong survive. Each season presents its own complications and dangers because in the life of an exploited wage slave, there is no relief.

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